Monday, January 7, 2013

Seeing Atrocities With Wisdom

Tears: A natural response to an atrocity

Two appalling events in the news in the past month have inspired these reflections. They are written with respect to all the victims and their families involved, and it is hoped that no offense is taken by anyone that reads them. When we look at a tragedy like the Newtown Connecticut shootings any number of responses can come up. We might be shocked that such an awful thing could happen, angry that innocent children & their teachers were mercilessly mown down, or vengeful towards the perpetrator. Regarding the Delhi bus rape & murder, such emotions may well arise in us also, for does not a woman have the right to travel in safety, without the fear of being brutally attacked? In both cases, all of these and similar responses would be both understandable and justifiable. But, we might also find it beneficial to look at such reactions with a Buddhist eye. Not because they are wrong, for Buddhism doesn't declare that any emotions are 'wrong,' but to comprehend them and see if we might turn them into something positive.

Negative responses are normal to events like the shooting in Newtown and the Delhi bus attack. On the contrary, it would be quite reasonable to claim that anything other than negative responses would be inappropriate, if not downright perverse. We may claim that because we have seen such horrid scenes again and again on our screens that they no longer touch us, but this would surely be an avoidance, a numbing of our real feelings. If we look at the footage from the shooting, for example, the terrified children, the stunned adults, a tearful president, our hearts will feel something. That something could well be shock at first. How could such a catastrophic murder spree take place? How must the parents of the dead children feel? Anger will understandably be one feeling. And we should respect the relatives and friends right to feel whatever they must in the wake of their loss.

But, for the rest of us, watching such events from afar, what can we make of our own reactions to a score of murdered children, along with half-a-dozen adults? If one such emotion is shock, then this is a good sign in a way. It means that such atrocious events are rarities in our lives, occurrences that we don't often experience. And this implies that at least in this respect alone, we live in decent enough societies, where usually the lives of others are respected. This is why it's such a shock to us when we do witness such terrible images. As to each of us as individuals, the shock that we feel suggests that we too are decent enough people, who consider the killing of children unacceptable. We care for them, even if we don't know them. This is an example of compassion, and it's a quality that we should cultivate, for it improves us both individually and collectively.

Another understandable reaction mentioned above is that of anger. In the case of the Delhi bus attack, we may well be angry that some men sadistically raped and beat a defenseless woman before dumping her and her friend off a moving bus. Again, this reveals that we think that such behavior is wholly intolerable, and therefore that both we and the cultures that we come from are basically good. But, though understandable in the short run, is anger such a good thing in the long run? Buddhism suggests not. Anger rots us from the inside. We become bitter, twisted, and vengeful. Sometimes even spiteful. Indeed, anger has been known to make the wronged worse than those that wronged them. If we observe our anger, however, as opposed to identifying with it, we might begin to understand it, and in doing so, turn it into something more productive. This isn't easy, and there isn't the space here to explore this issue further, but Buddhism contains many practices to enable such transformations. Among them, meditation is the most well-known.

To want revenge on a mass killer like the one in the Newtown school shooting is, as already acknowledged, understandable. Not only might the bereaved families desire 'an eye for eye,' but society at large might see it as an appropriate response. In the former case, this is to be expected and surely we should have sympathy, but in the latter case, things are different. Of course, the killer in Newtown took his own life, which makes the above observations somewhat redundant. However, it has been known that people are often 'guilty by association,' and the families of murderers are sometimes persecuted themselves. The Newtown killer first shot his mother, so she cannot be sought out to punish, but his brother (who was first wrongly reported to be the killer by the media) and his father are still alive. But are they any more guilty of this tragedy than any of us? And have they not suffered too with the loss of both the killer and his mother. The shame and confusion that they must feel towards the killer's actions must itself inspire us to feelings of sympathy, rather than revenge.

With regards to the Delhi bus attack, the killers are very much alive. Whether all the culprits are in custody at the time of this reflection is not clear, but it is clear that there is a clamor from the Indian public - or some quarters of it - for them to be executed for the despicable crimes they committed. Again, the family's feelings in these matters should be acknowledged, not criticized, and if it is their wish that the rapist-killers be put to death, that's understandable. But, for the rest of us, do we not need to be aware of why we react the way we do, and what the longterm ramifications of being a vengeful society might be? What of the families of the rapist-killers? They will be suffering too right now. Surely their parents did not bring up their sons to be raises and murderers? Can we not put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, as well for the victim's families, and see the disbelief and despair that they must be experiencing right now? We can be bigger than our fear and anger. We have the capacity to see the wider picture, and respond appropriately.

As a society, we have the ability to stand back from such tragedies and our responses to them. If we do not, aren't we indulging in our emotions and possibly brewing them into a potential frenzy? We are responsible for our emotions, not people in the news, however awful we may think them to be. Some amazing individuals have done this even when it was they who were terribly wronged, but we should not expect this of any victim's loved ones; they need space to express their grief. We, on the other hand, have the ability to observe our vengeful thoughts towards such killers. Are we violently-minded people too? If we take pleasure in a murderer's execution, wouldn't we be stained with blood also? Moreover, would such a death annul the deaths of those shot, or simply make us more at ease with the situation? If we wallow in our anger we brutalize ourselves, and by extension our society. Alternatively, if we take the time to observe our emotional responses and see what they do to us, and here they may lead us, we can begin to make ourselves somewhat wiser.

These are difficult issues. And yet, to reflect upon them can broaden our perspectives beyond the initial negative responses to tragedies like the Newtown school killings and the Delhi bus rape & murder. If we can turn anger and vengefulness into understanding, then we can learn from such a tragedy both at the level of the individual and as societies. We can give the space needed to shock, anger and vengefulness to arise in us in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event, but not cling to them. Then, having let them go, we can wait for lawful justice to take its course before helping the surviving victims and their families, as well as those of the dead, the opportunity to make a start to deal with their grief and torment. Probably, they will never recover from their loss, especially because of its manner, and we shouldn't push them to do so. But, we can be there for them in whatever capacity we can, whether its moral support, changes in the law, or in a general commitment to reduce such terrible events in the future.

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